Translated by Lo Nathamundi
This article appeared in the 2015:1 issue.
In 1970 Astrid Trotzig arrived in Sweden; she was five months old. Blod är tjockare än vatten (Blood is Thicker than Water), first published in 1996, takes us on a journey back to the country of her birth, Korea, and describes the ambivalence she feels in being adopted and in being neither Swedish nor Korean. It was nominated for the August Prize in 2001 and was also published in Korea.
2001 saw publication of her second book, Ibland undrar jag om jag minns rätt (Sometimes I Wonder if My Memory Serves Me Right), a novel centring on the disappearance of a young woman whose identity is pieced together by inconsistent statements from those close to her; whilst having elements of a crime novel’s suspense, it cleverly illustrates the impossibility of really knowing another human being. This was followed in 2003 by the novel Främmande i detta land (A Foreigner in This Country), a sad and frightening picture of attitudes to immigrants in Sweden, which was awarded the magazine Tidningen Vi’s literature prize. The same year she produced her first dramatic work, the one-act play Den första hösten (The First Autumn), in which the theme of alienation between people in close relationships can again be seen. In 2006 Patrioter (Patriots) was published, a novel spanning a period of over sixty years and depicting aspects of patriotism in characters from different generations. Astrid Trotzig has been an editor for BLM: Bonniers Litterära Magasin and from 1998 to 2006 she was a member of the Adjudication Committee for the Nordic Council Literature Prize. The following are extracts selected by the translator.
On the 31st of January 1970, I was found by the police in Pusan, South Korea. No information about my biological family exists. I was placed in a foster home, I don’t know where, maybe in Pusan, probably in Seoul. On the 10th of February, I arrived at a foster family in Seoul, where I spent the first five months of my life.
My parents had already adopted a boy and a girl, my siblings, both born in South Korea. My brother was three and a half when he came to Sweden in 1966, my sister came in 1968, when she was nine months old. As early as April of 1969, my parents turned in another adoption request. They wanted a boy between three and five years old.
I was approved. They wanted me. It could have just as easily been someone else who received Youn Taek Tahk’s letter. It could have just as easily been another child that was described.
In May of 1970, Youn Taek Tahk sends a confirmation that my parents have approved me.
Everything I know, up until now, about my background, about my stay in the country of my birth, is on the papers that the Child Placement Service sent to my parents.
Even if I have a hard time believing it’s realistic, I can’t deny that I sometimes hope I will suddenly find more information.
During the first five months, a lot happens in the development of a child. When I was younger, I didn’t think too much about my time in South Korea.
Five months is a short time span in a whole life.
These days I often wonder what happened then.
There’s no one I can ask.
What does exist is the possibility of trying to contact my Korean foster family.
They probably wouldn’t remember me.
They probably had many foster children. I was only one of them.
Stories and memories from the first months. I don’t think they can give me those.
Nor can they tell me anything about what I really want to know.
Birth. The way that biological children can hear about it so many times that they get tired of their parents’ re-telling of it.
Or: what happened before the police found me and why.
I ask a woman at the Center for Adoption about the possibility of finding additional documents in South Korea. She answers by saying that the likelihood is very small, practically non-existent. That all the documents have been sent to my parents.
Nor is it likely that police reports will be found from Pusan, they are destroyed every few years in countries like South Korea.
The dream of another life. Just as impossible for me as for anyone else. To disappear and live another life, to obliterate the past, and start all over from the beginning. In a new body, with a different history. The thought, the dream is diffuse.
I don’t even know what it is that I’m dreaming about. But the thought calls to me: I could have lived a completely different life. I could have developed into a completely different person. Maybe.
Suddenly I’m here. In Sweden. In this country among tall blondes. On the other side of the earth. On the 22nd of June in 1970, I landed in Sweden, five
months old. I brought with me a white silk bag, with gaudy embroidery. All adopted children from South Korea received a similar bag to take with them to their new homeland. Like a keepsake from the land where they were born.
My bag is now in a pink box in a bureau drawer, together with the white terry-cloth romper pants that I was wearing when I came here. They were way too big.
It costs money to adopt a child.
Costs for the child’s upkeep in South Korea.
Costs for the adoption process in South Korea.
Costs for advertising. What does that entail?
A total of 270 dollars.
The plane ticket to Stockholm cost 2,107 Swedish crowns.
On the 14th of July, Youn Taek Tahk sent a friendly reminder to my parents to pay the costs of the adoption.
Today, it costs almost 100,000 Swedish crowns to adopt a child, according to the National Board for International Adoptions.
In 1974, I became a Swedish citizen. I have the certificate to prove it, in the
same bureau drawer as the silk-covered bag. It looks very stylish. Stamp and signature from two authority figures of the state immigration service. The
processing fee was 115 crowns. I have proof. I’m Swedish. Or: I’m both Swedish and Korean.
Or: I’m neither one nor the other. I am between the halves.
There’s a paradoxical sense of loss and longing for the mother who gave birth to me and then left me. I can’t love my absent biological mother, I don’t even know who she is.
Which is why I can’t really hate her, either.
There are forbidden questions for her, an endless number of them, questions I can never get away from, unanswered questions. I try to work through them again and again. It has to at least be allowed to think them.
I want to know that there is a mother, somewhere in South Korea, who is mine. That knowledge is an impossibility.
A single fact remains: She left me.
I’m here, of course.
There are many, surely always compelling and well considered reasons to leave a child. And there are surely also those decisions that are not well considered, but made hastily.
I have a hard time understanding, a hard time accepting that my mother left me.
I can’t forget it, I can’t forgive.
Sometimes I defend her.
She really loved me. But in order for me to survive, she was forced to give me up. Against her will.
Sometimes there is a forbidden desire that she hadn’t left me. To be able to live with my biological mother regardless of social and mental living conditions.
When I was a child, I wished that my ‘real’ mom were dead, that she had died when I was born. That made it easier to understand.
I don’t want her to be dead, but I don’t want her to be alive, either.
Regardless of whether she is alive or not, I always want to be in her thoughts. Always. The memory of me. Her wondering what happened to me. I don’t want to cease to exist inside of her.
As a child, I was, for obvious reasons, unaware of the platitudes of child psychology.
Now I think: During my first several months as an infant I experienced two
separations, both of them beyond the reach of my memory.
The first is the separation from my mother, which I can’t really say anything
about. Only that the thought of it has been inside of me for as long as I can remember.
The second I’ve never reflected about until now, never even perceived it as
significant. Although it might be that it’s just that one that has shaped me
The separation from my foster mother, the woman that I must have experienced as my mother. It was with her that I lived the first five months
of my life.
Neither my consciousness nor my body remembers the presence of another mother. The tracks have been wiped out, as they say. I shouldn’t need to ponder, I shouldn’t need to think about the other mother. There are no memories to remember. There’s nothing to feel any sorrow over.
And yet, nevertheless, I can’t quite let go of the thought of her that I ask all my questions to.
My foster mother had no responsibility, not in the same way, at least. She is only a parenthesis for me, I can’t deny it. I don’t give her any deeper significance. The only thing I don’t understand is my mother.
When I was a child and even up into my teenage years, I didn’t want to know who she was. Only now, twenty five years after she left me, do I want to know. My other mother. From that other country.
But there is no family to look for. To ‘return’ to.
And yet, paradoxically enough, there is a comfort in not knowing. The knowledge that it might be possible to find my biological family constitutes
a threat. Against the reality of the life that is here. I will never need to end up in that situation.
Sometimes I wish that I were a ‘real’ immigrant. That my whole family were Korean, that we had immigrated from South Korea, for some reason, any reason. I would have a ‘real’ family. We would have another country in common. With memories and desires. We would be one. I would resemble my parents. Their ways of speaking, being, or moving, their appearances, would also be mine.
Or: I could have been adopted by a Korean family, or Chinese, Asian, grown up with the belief that I was a biological child, like one is supposed to be, like one ought to be, like one wants to be.
There are presently more than 35,000 foreign-born adopted children in Sweden, over 7,000 of whom were born in South Korea.
I’m not alone, but it’s my own adoption that I have to learn to live with.
Being adopted is something you never get away from. It’s not something you can leave behind you. You can accept it, but you can never get rid of it.
It takes thirteen hours non-stop from Paris to Seoul.
The route goes north, back towards Sweden, over the Baltic Sea, Finland, Russia, and Siberia. The longer we’re on the plane, the more relaxed the mood gets among the passengers. They walk around in the aisles, talk to one another here and there. They stand and smoke in the aisles, reprimanded again and again by the flight attendants.
Two American films are shown, the first with original sounds and French
dubbing. During the second, one can only choose between French and Korean dubbing.
It’s early morning in South Korea. Kimp’o is about 11 miles west of Seoul.
My pappa has always said that I should never have all of my cash in my wallet when I’m out traveling. ‘Keep your money in different places!’ he says, and I follow his advice. I keep some cash in my wallet, but a larger portion in my suitcase. Besides, I trust my credit card.
The only thing is, at the moment my suitcase is in Hong Kong.
I notice on a placard that taxis with a yellow sign, Deluxe, are significantly
more expensive than the ones with a blue sign. It says the same thing in my guidebook, but the only taxi-driver who claims to be able to speak English drives a Deluxe taxi. The taxi meter quickly eats up all the cash I have, the taxi driver doesn’t actually speak any English, and it’s impossible to get him to understand that I can’t pay.